By , Barnabas Aid On October 31, 2014

In a blow to Dalit Christians in India, the country’s minister for social justice has said that the new government will not grant to them or to Dalit Muslims the rights afforded to their Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh counterparts.

lso has a socio-economic basis. Dalits are a historically impoverished group at the very bottom of India‘s stratified society. They are amongst those who were formerly known as “outcastes” because they were below the lowest level of the caste system, or “untouchables” because higher castes believed they would defile themselves by any physical contact with a Dalit. They live in extreme poverty caused by discrimination in education and employment.

In order to try to help their dire situation, the Indian government classifies some Dalits as Scheduled Caste, which makes them eligible to receive certain benefits such as a quota of places in education and employment.  But this depends on what religion they are: followers of religions which originated outside of India (Christians and Muslims) are not eligible to be Scheduled Castes.

Scheduled Caste Dalits lose this status if they convert to Christianity or Islam. They are poorest of the poor and are discriminated against by the Indian welfare system, whose tests are based on caste not on income or socio-economic conditions.

So converting to Christianity does not in reality usually allow Dalits to escape the social discrimination endured by the group, and certainly disadvantages them economically as they lose their Scheduled Caste status.

Mr Ghelot told the Times of India that granting “Scheduled Caste” status to Christian Dalits would encourage religious conversions. Some Hindu nationalist organisations have similarly complained that giving Christian and Muslim Dalits equal rights with other Dalits would allow Hindu Dalits to change their religion freely; the potential loss of benefits is seen as a means of preventing conversions to Christianity or Islam.

Hindu Dalits have been afforded Scheduled Caste status since 1950, when the Indian Parliament adopted Article 3 of the constitution, which granted them certain economic, educational and social benefits in an attempt to redress the deprivation they had suffered.

Although this status has since been extended to Sikh, Buddhist and Jain Dalits, it has never been granted to Christian and Muslim Dalits despite decades of campaigning for equal rights. In December 2013, police took brutal action against peaceful protestors demanding justice for all Dalits.

The minister’s statement comes as concerns grow over escalating anti-Christian attacks under India‘s new President, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). One Christian group has recorded more than 600 anti-Christian attacks since May, when the BJP took power.